I saw a painting of it in one of the art galleries on famous King Street in Charleston, South Carolina. It was calling me from across the room: the Grandmother of all Trees! She had a name and a location – Angel Oak Tree, Johns Island. The tree was summoning me, I had to find her. Miraculously, it was close to where I was staying and my friend drove me there.
Angel Oak lives on Johns Island and is a Southern live oak (Quercus virginiana), very different from our Northern oak trees. An extensive fence around the tree announced that the City of Charleston owns this area and sends its most committed police men to patrol it and protect it against vandalism and tree-climbing bandits. To make sure that there can be no misunderstanding, there are even more signs set up under the tree reminding visitors not to carve the tree limbs or climb around on them.
Angel Oak is estimated to be 1,500 years old, and is possibly the oldest tree east of the Mississippi. It stands 65 feet (20 m) tall and its crown covers 17,000 square feet (1,600 sq.m.). Many of its limbs are resting on the ground. Heavy-duty metal pipes support branches high up in the air. The longest limb extends 89 feet.
The oak was previously owned by the Angel family; however, local folklore tells of another source for the name of the tree: ghosts of former slaves are said to appear as angels around the tree.
People young and old wander around the huge trunk (25.5 feet in circumference) and duck under the massive limbs
They run their hands across the rough bark, whisper prayers to it, gaze up admiringly
The tree appears to have many arms, like a multi-limbed Shiva
and maybe a second tree that seems to embrace the mother:
If this tree could talk, what stories would it tell?
Looking out towards the young forest surrounding Angel Oak, you can see the contrast between the puny size of the much younger trees keeping a respectful distance from Grandmother Tree.
Reluctantly, leaving the green and lofty canopy of Angel Oak, we stroll towards the exit and discover a painter who has already created two images of her:
He tells us of the albino squirrel he saw sitting on the tree, posing long enough for him to paint its whispy ghost image into the tree.